On a Wing and a Prayer
A palpable pride rose through the congregation as its young rabbi placed his flowing Tallit over the shoulders of his formal blue Air Force uniform. Standing before the Ark, next to Navy Rear Admiral Herman Shelanski, resplendent in “dress whites,” they sang the prayers of Shabbat. Military uniforms, some dating back several decades, were visible throughout the congregation of the Park Avenue Synagogue on Memorial Day weekend Shabbat.
Rabbi Stephen Rein was seated before his library of sacred texts, looked like many other modern young rabbis. The associate rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue is an unusual addition to the rabbinate, he also serves as a member of another notable organization – the United States Air Force.
Raised in an observant, kosher home, child of a Shomer Shabbat family and an active member of Congregation Agudath Israel in New Jersey, Rein and his college roommate founded the New York University branch of KOACH, an experience that awakened his Jewish identity and growing intellectual involvement in Judaism.
A prize-winning young scientist, Rein dramatically changed his career expectations. Even as he prepared for the MCAPS (the medical school “college boards”) his path was taking a different direction. Still at NYU, Rein began studying Talmud. His study partner, a student in the joint Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary double degree program, was the young woman who would become his wife. His Honors thesis was an examination of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls, analyzing their authorship and questioning the validity of the Essences input.
Rein enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary. The young rabbi says he choose the Seminary because of the school’s “important correlation between Jewish tradition and modern intellectual honesty and thought, an intersection that actively comes together at JTS.” He was drawn by the school’s “commitment to Jewish learning, Jewish living, and its desire to help shape the Jewish community of today and tomorrow.”
“So you recognized your calling to the rabbinate. Understandable. But to the Air Force? What’s a nice Jewish boy….?”
During his second year of rabbinical school, recently married and looking for a “different” summer experience, Rein explored (U.S.) military chaplain-candidate programs. A two-summer, “no strings” Air Force option caught his interest. The “weekend warrior” would be attached to a specific unit to fill the stateside role of chaplains serving overseas. Following basic training, the newly-minted lieutenant was assigned to Langley Air Force; his mission was to help boost the servicemen’s esprit d’corps through participation in community activities, conduct ceremonies, hospital visits, education, and generally be available to young airmen and women – whatever their faith.
What does a Jewish military chaplain do?
“All chaplains,” said Rein “serve their faith group specifically and all are chaplain officers of the Air Force. On duty, “They don’t call me Rabbi, they call me Chaplain.”
There are Jewish chaplains in every branch of the military. About seven are in the Air Force Reserve, and approximately twenty serve throughout the military. Rein’s appointment to Scott Air Force Base was fostered by the efforts of a wing chaplain – a Methodist – who made it his “mission” to bring a Jewish chaplain to the base, the first in 20 years. (About 3000 Jews – 1.5% of Air Force personnel – are on active duty throughout America’s three dozen Air Force bases.)
In the beginning: Training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, lasted about five weeks. The new recruit had to request – and did get – permission to call his wife Erev Shabbat. During their first conversation, he recalled being practically in tears. “But, by the end, it felt great. I recognized that some of the seemingly senseless requirements I faced were actually mind games. I was challenged to win.”
The student rabbi was sequentially assigned to four different bases across the country: Massachusetts, the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and bases in Ohio and Washington, DC. His progress through the ranks has brought him to the rank of “captain.” Asked what contribution to the spiritual and emotional life of the troops can be made in “two weeks plus three days, four times a year,” Rein said. “One has to keep track of all that is done. Whether it’s formal counseling or an informal BBQ for the young airmen and women at The Eagle’s Wing (the enlisted personnel’s “club.”), he participates in life cycle events and advises about day-to-day situations. Chaplain Rein was involved in one such event incorporating both his personal and military duties: he was assigned to officiate at a funeral: his wife’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Your obligation is now finished. Why do you stay in the United States Military?
“It’s my way of giving back to America. America has given us, as individuals and as Jews, so many freedoms and so much liberty. People take things for granted.” A strong supporter of Israel, Reims says “I am not an Israeli. I am a chaplain in the United States Military. My primary mission is to ensure that freedom and the continued free practice of religion in America.”
The Captain anticipates “staying in” a minimum of 20 years. While a call to active duty is unlikely – the Air Force has never involuntarily mobilized a reserve chaplain – if it happened, he says, “I would go. It would be my obligation and responsibility.”
Being a Jew in the United States Military is not always easy. In 2009, an enlisted man, Michael Landsman, was attacked and taunted. A Jewish lay leader – not a chaplain -advised him to “suck it up.” “That”, says Rein, “is not acceptable.” While the Landsman situation appears to have been an anomaly, policy changes have been put into place that more sensitively recognize the needs of the Jewish solider. “I have experienced only gratitude and warmth in my work. There may be inquisitiveness, but it’s not overtly negative. Part of my responsibility as a Jewish chaplain is to establish understanding.”
Being a pulpit rabbi and a Reserve Air Force Chaplain, says Rein, “is the best of both worlds.” His congregational experiences enhance his military activities. His military experience in interfaith dialogue, trauma and crisis training translates to his community leadership, communications and counseling skills. “Military obligations provide a wonderful outlet.” On a lighter note, the young rabbi says that his wife, who is very supportive of his choice to serve, enjoys the access to the commissary and being able to “hop a plane to just about anywhere!”
“Our country has a deficit of individuals who take responsibility,” says Rein. “Many take freedom and liberty for granted. We have a responsibility to give back to our great nation which has provided an opportunity to grow up in a free society. …What happens in Israel, where everyone goes into the military, is not feasible in the America. Young people – everyone – should have some sort of service project so that they can give back, to assert ownership and take responsibility for their country. When you invest in something, you take more pride in it and in its success.